Reviews on MusicWeb of earlier volumes in this series have been wholly positive. Of the seven projected sets in what is a huge undertaking – 550 keyboard sonatas in all - five have so far been released. Volume V (Venice XII – XIII, 1756-7) is equally deserving of the highest praise and can be unreservedly recommended for lovers of this intriguing and evocative repertoire in general, as much as for those (already) ‘collecting’ Scarlatti.
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) wrote most of these wonderful and inventive sonatas for his pupil, princess (then queen) Maria Barbara, over many years. On his death she bequeathed them in a set of fifteen volumes to the famous castrato Farinelli. By 1782 – some years after Farinelli’s own death – they were to be found in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. Hence the naming. Whilst respecting and following Ralph Kirkpatrick’s ‘K’ catalogue for these recordings, Nimbus and Lester have chosen to subdivide the entire oeuvre according to these Venice volumes.
This set, Volume V, has reached the twelfth and thirteenth volumes; they were also preserved in duplicate by the same copyist as the Biblioteca Marciana set, probably Padre Antonio Soler. These are mature and varied works increasingly lyrical and even freely romantic at times. They are expertly played by Lester – again on a harpsichord by Michael Cole after José Joachim Antunes (1785) with A tuned to 415.
Discs 1 to 4 contain sixty sonatas (K484 – K543) of great wit, beauty, originality and colour. Lester’s playing is as fresh and yet thoughtful as you could want. It’s likely that you’ll listen to them, perhaps disc by disc; what you’ll hear is a superb performer approaching each one with considered enthusiasm, and delight. Yet the presentation of each work is clearly the result of much study and familiarity; these bring extra insight. You quickly appreciate that each sonata has its own logic, references itself and its world and can lay separate claim to our attention. The rationale for and execution of each piece is handled by Lester, almost, with a kind of informed and cohesive humility – rather than as one of series to be pulled off the shelf, heard and stored for future curiosity.
In these works the dance is everywhere. Scarlatti’s obvious delight at the apparent anomaly between an accomplished dancer’s ability to leap and yet retain his/her poise is evident particularly in K487, 489, 491, 494, 500, 502, 504, 506, 510 and 512, for example. Many of the sonatas are shot through with arpeggios, runs up and down the scale and huge jumps in range. The rhythms and tone of Spanish folk music permeate the music; they clearly made an impression on the composer as he lived and worked in Spain for so long and had opportunities to travel with the court throughout the peninsular. But this world was absorbed and integrated into the sonatas such that they have a life of their own.
To hear about the breadth and vividness of Scarlatti’s sonatas might be to characterise them as ‘charming’; which far from does them justice. To overhear them ought at least to be to sense Scarlatti’s virtuosity. Lester’s playing is more apposite. It communicates their centres and origins. Not that he lacks technique, or shuns virtuosic exposition (listen to the sonatas in the 510s!). But the tempi he adopts and the extremely precise control of texture and timing combined make these discs much more satisfying than a recital of a series of showpieces would be.
The number of sonatas about which something special needs to be said has increased by the time we get to this volume… K485 has the widest range (F1 – g3) of any in the entire corpus. K490, 491 and 492 represent a Passiontide festival and pack a remarkable amount of figurative colour into solo keyboard music. K491 and 494 make extraordinary use of changes of key; while K502 and 504 bring us similarly up short for their almost violent changes of rhythm and tempo.
Also of note is the he variety of mood in this set – from the energetic (K497 and K517) to the reflective (K498, 499, 500, 516); from the imitative (K429) to works redolent of a particular feature of contemporary life (K513 and Christmas); from the pathetic and self-deprecating (K515, 526) to purely scintillating (K526, 531).
Disc 5 is unusual for this Nimbus set of solo keyboard sonatas: it contains the K78, 81, 88, 89, 90, 91 Trio sonatas and Alessandro Scarlatti’s Sinfonia in C Minor with – variously (see listing at top of page) - Elizabeth Lester (treble recorder) and Nerys Evans (descant recorder); and Handel’s Sonata in F Major (HWV 405). Although it’s unknown for sure which instrumentation Scarlatti intended for these works, the use of a figured bass and highly worked original melodic line suggest a solo instrument like the violin. The Sinfonia (really another name for ‘sonata’) by Domenico’s father, Alessandro, is well-played and provides contrast; although the recorders are closely miked and are forward of the harpsichord such that an odd – and rather dry and clinical – balance is the result.
The inclusion of these pieces here – and that of the Handel sonata from that composer’s time in Italy (1706 – 1710) – seems to follow from the fact that they too may well have been performed at regular weekly concerts at the Palazzo della Cancelleria, home of Roman patron of the arts, cardinal Pietro Ottoboni.
The same minor criticism can be levelled fairly at this set as at previous ones … the absence of a really good booklet accompanying the discs. Given the size and scope of the enterprise, the brief notes on several - but by no means all – of the sonatas, really do leave one wanting more. So you will want to supplement just ten pages of description and three of listings with a book like The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style (ISBN: 0521481406).
It appears, by the way, that a mastering fault (plops and cracks towards the end of CD four) may have affected a small batch of CDs. If the version you have exhibits this fault, contact Nimbus directly for a replacement.
If you want to experience the shimmering warmth of eighteenth century Spain, the elegance, vibrancy and somewhat rough-edged spirit of the court; and at the same time learn the intricate subtleties and profundities of Scarlatti’s seemingly endless invention, then buy this also very reasonably-priced set.
Mark Sealey, Musicweb-international.com